Politics of Assamese Language
May 21, 2019
How do you identify yourself?
I am an Axomiya, Ma’am.
This was my first response to a professor, who was teaching about identity and marginalization in contemporary India in our MA classes, some years ago, in the University of Hyderabad. In a class, filled with engaging students, where the basis of hegemonic and imagined communities like that of the nation were being questioned constantly, my answer was a topic of the day. I had to face a lot of questions and challenges from the teacher and my classmates. The theoretical premises of my assertion were questioned, and Benedict Anderson’s idea of ‘imagined community’ was discussed in that context. I accepted the basic point of the Axomiya being an imagined community and that the whole identity discourse in colonial and post-colonial Axom was severely affected and directed by the nature and changes in this imagination of the community. But, my sentimental belongingness prevented me from accepting ‘Axomiya’ identity as hegemonic or of dominating in nature vis-a- vis several ethnic-cultural groups/ ‘tribes’ living in Assam, as have been talked about much recently. I brought to the discussion aspects of cultural assimilation and also the Ek Xoroniya Naam Dharma by the 15thcentury socio- religious propagator Sri Sankardeva, the heroics and assimilative efforts by many like Sukapha, Naranarayana and Silaray etc. I spoke about the processes of assimilation, cultural homogenization brought about by religious doctrines and political unity. Thus, identifying the historical legacies of the formation of the Axomiya identity, finally, the colonial policies and the native responses, among others were discussed too, in relation and as contributing factor to the development of the Axomiya identity.
Now of course, with a slightly better knowledge of the processes, I am very much aware of the ‘hegemonic’ nature of the Axomiya identity (as can be tentatively identified with the alternative view propagated by many intellectuals belonging to different ethnic cultural groups in Axom.), and the narrow political discourses directing this hegemony in recent decades. With the unfortunate articulations of the recent state demands and autonomy movements, the whole matter demands a re-reading. I am aware of the possible interpretation of my using the word unfortunate in the previous sentence as portraying a ‘mainstream’ cultural and political consciousness, whereas the state demands were mostly portrayed as an expression of self-assertion and cultural autonomy by the people of those concerned communities. I have still used the word, not with any ‘mainstream’ mentality or sense of cultural superiority, but due to my deep belief in the cultural premises of Axom and the Axomiya identity and also in the possibility and necessity of reformation and strengthening of the Axomiya identity. I do this while acknowledging and respecting the idea and consciousness of self-assertion and socio-cultural autonomy of various ethnic communities.
I apologize for the self-centered tone of the introduction. I could not find any other way better than this to begin this discussion dealing with the present cultural and political pattern in Axom from an insider’s eye, because, to me, the ‘I’ here represents the generation of youth in Assam, who had spent their childhood and early teenage in the 90s, the decade of extremism (state and armed organization’s) and in the midst of gradual decline of the cultural- sentimental base of the idea of Axom and also the Axomiya identity. This process of decline of the ideological and cultural base of Axom and the Axomiya identity has been self- containing and self-contradictory at times. Again, I have used the word decline here not as defying or condemning the self- assertion of the different socio-cultural/ethnic groups in Axom, rather with the same sense as mentioned earlier in the context of the word unfortunate.
There have been instances when this ‘I’ also felt somewhat ignored or marginalized within the corpus of the so called ‘mainstream’ Axomiya identity. I speak Barpeita, which is a form within the identifiable Kamrupia dialectical spoken pattern of Assamese. This again brings forth to discussion another important dimension, the dialectical difference in Axom and the related cultural marginalization and dominance. This has been a dimension simultaneously ignored and proactively used in the Axomiya identity discourse. This dimension is dealt in detail in this article in reference to the present condition. More than in the academic or institutional circles, it was in the political and popular sphere that this cultural politics of dominance and marginalization on the basis of dialectical difference worked, and permeates even today. This has been a process continuing from the colonial period, i.e. the formative period of the political entity of Axom. The cultural and spatial distinction and distancing, in the popular mindset, of Ujoni (upper) and Namoni(lower) cannot be denied altogether. Though the terms are based on spatial and geographical pattern, the literal meanings have colored the cultural meanings too and in the Axomiya popular sphere, mostly in the post-independence period, this has been a hard truth to accept or refuse at the same time. However, this is not a hard institutionalized tendency, or manifested openly, and there are laudable exceptions. But, this is indeed a popular phenomenon, and there has not been much attempt to reduce the distance or superiority-inferiority complex in the respective popular psyche in Ujoni and Namoni. Hegemonic imposition and a swift politics of denial were and still have been played against the dialectical varieties, mostly in western Axom.
The whole phenomenon has another dimension. This brings forth the historical aspect. Assam is a colonial construct (here, I am to use the colonial term Assam due to the content and context of the matter.) The imagination of the community and formulation of ‘Axomiya’ identity was a process somewhat collaborative and parallel to the territorial construction of Assam. The 19th Century standardization process of the ‘Axomiya’ language ignored and marginalized the local dialectical and spoken variations, and established the eastern Assam variety as the standard ‘Axomiya’ language. In the movement for recognition of the Axomiya language, the linguistic trend and standardized language propagated and popularized by the Missionaries were more or less adopted. And there remained the root of the problem that is being discussed here. In the ‘nationalistic’ movement, opposing the colonial policy of cultural-linguistic homogenization and in the process of assertion of Axomiya identity, this standard ‘Axomiya’ language was projected as the chief site. And, there a great chance of actual cultural assimilation and uniformity between the two ‘chief’ cultural-spatial divisions within Axom and Axomiya was missed (or denied?). In the discussions about the politics of linguistic dominance, identity discourse and the self-assertions by various ethnic communities without the confines of the Axomiya identity in Axom, this dimension is not adequately raised.
Recognition and proper maintenance and projection of dialectical differences, (and thereby enabling them to contribute equally in the formulation and assertion of Axomiya language and identity) and framing the unique linguistic situation in Assam as a peculiar and rich feature of Axom, could/should have been attempted, at least, in the later period. And this is not an anachronistic revision; there were attempts of this kind and oppositions to them. Kaliram Medhi’s (and many other important persons’) endeavours for publicizing the words of Kamrupia and Gowalparia dialects and many a stalwart’s uneasy position with Medhi’s endeavours is a classic example and hard truth to be aware of. I will not go into the discussion of Medhi’s attempts and the response shown by many influential contemporary intellectuals as the scope of this article and my limited knowledge do not allow me to do so. Coming back to the main argument, recognition of existence of different linguistic and cultural stocks and also the dialectical differences within the ‘Axomiya’ language itself, and portraying them as equal and unique contributors in the processes of formation and expression of Axomiya identity, is the solution to the offer. However, I feel that in the present situation, this should be attempted in case of the diverse ethnic-cultural groups and languages in Axom, the possibility and need of such a process in case of dialectical/ regional differences within the ‘Axomiya’ language is no more to be seen.
The overarching Axomiya identity has been formed on the basis of the dominant cultural- linguistic trend, and different regional, cultural, ethnic differences were neither recognized, nor respected. To add another possible dynamics in the same logic, can the root of Koch Rajbongshi’s movement for self-governance and separate state be seen in the light of politics of linguistic difference and dominance too? This is an important question to be addressed to. Though ideologues for greater ‘Axomiya’ identity may reject these outrightly, stating that these are sentimental and separatist tendencies, yet one cannot deny the basic premises of the argument made above and the questions that follows. The later ‘Axomiya’ nationalistic discourses also ignored the small nationalities and ethnic groups in Assam. Their languages and cultures were marginalized in front of the hegemonic greater ‘Axomiya’ language and culture. This has been continuing. It is very unfortunate to see that still the movements for self-assertion and demands for a separate state by the ethnic cultural groups like the Bodos, the Karbis etc. are largely and directly categorized as separatist and all the inner dynamics are forcefully ignored. Terming these movements as highly motivated by the politics of the affluent classes among those tribes/ethnic groups, rather than trying to recognize the self-consciousness and ‘nationalistic’ feeling of the people belonging to those ethnic-cultural groups/tribes, there has been a process of re-imposition of cultural-linguistic hegemony of the greater ‘Axomiya’ identity, and which has proven to be dangerous in the prevalent form and times.
The terms Assam and Assamese are of colonial origin. I have preferred to use, to the extent I can, the native words by which the people identify their land and themselves, i.e. Axom and Axomiya, respectively.
First published in PangSau.
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